In February, Pritpal Singh, PhD, professor and chair, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, spent 70 hours traveling for a two-day visit to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Burundi, a landlocked country in East Africa. The trip stemmed from a conversation Dr. Singh had with Christopher Fabian, Senior Advisor on Innovation, UNICEF New York, whom he met at the 2014 International Humanitarian Technology Conference. Fabian described the impressive work performed in UNICEF Burundi’s Innovation Lab, and explained how progress is limited by a lack of electricity—which exists in only 3 percent of the country. Solar energy is believed to be the answer to rural electrification, but external partners are needed to make that happen. With his expertise in renewable energy, Dr. Singh saw an opportunity to involve himself and students in Villanova’s College of Engineering in meeting the needs of those in Burundi, one of the five poorest countries in the world.
Dr. Singh’s visit to Burundi was hosted by Innovation Lab director Mima Stojanovic who introduced him to community members, teachers, students and UNICEF staff and volunteers. He spoke with members of the Nawe Nuze group, which had formed a Village Savings and Loan Association to support its members and vulnerable children in the community. In a display of entrepreneurial spirit, the group purchased a well-designed and rugged $275 pedal-powered charging unit on which five lights can be charged with 20 minutes of pedaling. The group sells and recharges the lights to generate income while providing households with clean energy. The investment in the pedal-powered light charging unit can be recouped in only four months. One of the women Dr. Singh met demonstrated using the light as a head lamp by which she cooks. Prior to having the light, she often had difficulty seeing the food she was eating.